Chapter 14 – The Tolbooth., pp.123-138.

Memorials of the Heart of Midlothian, or Old Tolbooth – Sir Walter Scott’s Description – The Early Tolbooth – The “Robin Hood” Disturbances – Noted Prisoners – Entries from the Records – Lord Burleigh’s Attempts at Escape – The Porteous Mob – The Stories of Katherine Nairne and of James Hay – The Town Guard – The Royal Bedesmen.


THE genius of Scott has shed a strange halo around the memory of the grim and massive Tolbooth prison, so much so that the creations of his imagination, such as Jeanie and Effie Deans, take the place of real persons of flesh and blood, and such is the power of genius, that with the name of the Heart of Midlothian we couple the fierce fury of the Porteous mob. “Antique in form, gloomy and haggard in aspect, its black stanchioned windows, opening through its dingy walls like the apertures of a hearse, it was calculated to impress all beholders with a sense of what was meant in Scottish law by the squalor carceris.”


Situated in the very heart of the ancient city, it stood at the north-west corner of the parish church of St. Giles, and so close to it as to leave only a narrow footway between the projecting buttresses, while its tall and gloomy mass extended so far into the High Street, as to leave the thoroughfare at that part only 14 feet in breadth. “Reuben Butler,” says Scott, writing ere its demolition had been decreed, “stood now before the Gothic entrance of the ancient prison, which, as is well known to all men, rears its front in the very middle of the High Street, forming, as it were, the termination to a huge pile of buildings called the Luckenbooths, which, for some inconceivable reason, our ancestors had jammed into the midst of the principal street of the town, leaving for passage a narrow street on the north and on the south, into which the prison opens, a narrow, crooked lane, winding betwixt the high and sombre walls of the Tolbooth and the adjacent houses on one side, and the buttresses and projections of the old church upon the other. To give some gaiety to this sombre passage (well known by the name of the Krames), a number of little booths or shops, after the fashion of cobblers’ stalls, are plastered, as it were, against the Gothic projections and abutments, so that it seemed as if the traders had occupied with nests – bearing about the same proportion to the building – every buttress and coign of vantage, as the martlet did in Macbeth’s castle. Of later years these booths have degenerated into mere toy-shops, where the little loiterers chiefly interested in such wares are tempted to linger, enchanted by the rich display of hobby-horses, babies, and Dutch toys, arranged in artful and gay confusion, yet half scared by the cross looks of the withered pantaloon by whom these wares are superintended. But in the times we write of the hosiers, glovers, hatters, mercers, milliners, and all who dealt in the miscellaneous wares now termed haberdashers’ goods, were to be found in this narrow alley.”

By the year 1561 the Tolbooth, or Pretorium burgi de Edinburgi, as it is named in the early Acts of the Scottish Parliament, had become ruinous, and on the 6th of February Queen Mary wrote a letter to the magistrates, charging the Provost to take it down at once, and meanwhile to provide accommodation elsewhere for the Lords of Session. Since the storm of the Reformation the Scottish revenues had been greatly impaired; money and materials were alike scarce; hence the magistrates were anxious, if possible, to preserve the old building; accordingly a new one was erected, entirely apart from it, adjoining the south-west corner of St. Giles’s church, and the eastern portion of the old Tolbooth bore incontestable evidence of being the work of an age long anterior to the date of Queen Mary’s letter, and the line of demarcation between the east and west ends of the edifice is still apparent in all views of it. The more ancient portion, which had on its first floor a large and deeply-embayed square window, having rich Gothic niches on each side, is supposed to have been at one time the house of the Provost of St. Giles’s church, or some such appendage to the latter, while the prebends and other members of the colleges were accommodated in edifices on the south side of the church, removed in 1632 to make way for the present Parliament House. Thus it is supposed to have been built about 1466, when James III. erected St. Giles’s into a collegiate church, and the chapter-house thereof being of sufficient dimensions, would naturally lead to the meeting-place of parliaments, though many were held in Edinburgh long before the time of James III., especially in the old hall of the Castle, now degraded into a military hospital.

The first Parliament of James II. Was held in the latter in 1437; in 1438 the second Parliament was held at Stirling, but in the November of the same year another in pretorio burgi de Edinburgh, i.e., the Tolbooth; others were held there in 1449 and 1459. In the latter the Scottish word “Tolbooth,” meaning a tax-house, occurs for the first time; “Hence,” says Wilson, “a much older, and probably larger erection must therefore have existed on the site of the western portion of the Tolbooth, the ruinous state of which led to the royal command for its demolition in 1561 – not a century after the date we are disposed to assign to the oldest portion of the building that remained till 1817, and which, though decayed and time-worn, was so far from being ruinous even then, that it proved a work of great labour to demolish its solid masonry.” In the “Diurnal of Occurrents,” it is recorded that in 1571 “the tour of the auld Tolbuyth was tane doun.”


The ornamental north gable of the Tolbooth was never seen without a human head stuck thereon in “the good old times.” In 1581 “the prick on the highest stone” bore the head of the Regent Morton, in 1650 the head of the gallant Montrose, till ten years subsequently it was replaced by that of his enemy Argyle.

In 1561 the Tolbooth figures in one of those tulzies or rows so common in the Edinburgh of those days; but in this particular instance we see a distinct foreshadowing of the Porteous mob of the eighteenth century, by the magistrates forbidding a “Robin Hood.” This was the darling May game of Scotland as well as England, and, under the pretence of frolic, gave an unusual degree of licence; but the Scottish Calvinistic clergy, with John Knox at their head, and backed by the authority of the magistrates of Edinburgh, who had of late been chosen exclusively from that party, found it impossible to control the rage of the populace when deprived of the privilege of having a Robin Hood, with the Abbot of Unreason and the Queen of the May. Thus it came to pass, that in May, 1561, when a man in Edinburgh was chosen as “Robin Hood and Lord of Inobedience,” most probably because he was a frolicsome, witty, and popular fellow, and passed through the city with a great number of followers, noisily, and armed, with a banner displayed, to the Castle Hill, thee magistrates caught one of his companions, “a cordiner’s servant,” named James Gillon, whom they condemned to be hanged on the 21st of July.


On that day, as he was to be conveyed to the gibbet, it was set up with the ladder against it in the usual fashion, when the craftsmen rushed into the streets, clad in their armour, with spears, axes, and hand-guns. They seized the Provost by main force of arms, together with two Bailies, David Symmer and Adam Fullarton, and thrusting them into Alexander Guthrie’s writing booth, left them there under a guard. The rest marched to the cross, broke the gibbet to pieces, and beating in the doors of the Tolbooth with sledge-hammers, under the eyes of the magistrates, who were warded close by, they brought forth the prisoner, whom they conveyed in triumph down the street to the Nether Bow Port. Finding the latter closed, they passed up the street again. By this time the magistrates had taken shelter in the Tolbooth, from whence one of them fired a pistol and wounded one of the mob. “That being done,” says the Diurnal of Occurrents, “there was naething but tak and slay! that is, the one part shooting forth and casting stones, the other part shooting hagbuts in again, and sae the craftsmen’s servants held them (conducted themselves) continually frae three hours afternoon, while (till) aucht at even, and never ane man of the toun steirit to defend their provost ad bailies.”

The former, who was Thomas MacCalzean, of Clifton Hall, contrived to open a communication with the constable of the Castle, who came with an armed party to act as umpire; and through that officer it was arranged “that the provost and bailies should discharge all manner of actions whilk they had against the said crafts-childer in ony time bygone;” and this being done and proclaimed, the armed trades peacefully disbanded, and the magistrates were permitted to leave the Tolbooth.

In 1579 the sixth Parliament of James VI. met there. The Estates rode through the streets; “the crown was borne before his Majesty by Archibald Earl of Angus, the sceptre by Colin Earl of Argyle, Chancellor, and the sword of honour, by Robert Earl of Lennox.” Moyse adds, when the Parliament was dissolved, twelve days after, the king again rode thither in state. In 1581 Morton was tried and convicted in the hall for the murder of Darnley; the King’s Advocate on that occasion was Robert Crichton of Elliock, father of the “Admirable Crichton.”*


Calderwood records some curious instances of the king’s imbecility among his fierce and turbulent courtiers. On January 7th, 1590, when he was coming down the High Street from the Tolbooth, where he had been administering justice, two of his attendants, Lodovick Duke of Lennox (hereditary High Admiral and Great Chamberlain), and Alexander Lord Home, meeting the Laird of Logie, with whom they had a quarrel, though he was valet of the royal chamber, attacked him sword in hand, to the alarm of James, who retired into an adjacent close; and six days after, when he was sitting in the Tolbooth hearing the case of the Laird of Craigmillar, who was suing a divorce against his wife, the Earl of Bothwell forcibly dragged out one of the most important witnesses, and carrying him to his castle of Crichton, eleven miles distant, threatened to hang him if he uttered a word.

On the charge of being a “Papist,” among many other prisoners in the Tolbooth in 1628, was the Countess of Abercorn, where her health became broken by confinement, and the misery of a prison which, if it was loathsome in the reign of George III., must have been something terrible in the days of Charles I. In 1621 she obtained a licence to go to the baths of Bristol, but failing to leave the city, was lodged for six months in the Canongate gaol. After she had been under restraint in various places for three years, she was permitted to remain in the earl’s house at Paisley, in March 1631, on condition that she “reset no Jesuits,” and to return if required under a penalty of 5,000 merks.

Taken seriatim, the records of the Tolbooth contain volumes of entries made in the following brief fashion:-

“1662, June 10. – John Kincaid put in ward by warrant of the Lords of the Privy Council, for ‘pricking of persons suspected of witchcraft unwarrantably.’ Liberated on finding caution not to do so again.
“- June 10. – Robert Binning for falsehood; hanged with the false papers about his neck.
“- Aug. 13. – Robert Reid for murder. His head struck from his body at the mercat cross.
“- Dec. 4. – James Ridpath, tinker; to be qhupitt [whipped] from Castle-hill to Netherbow, burned on the cheek with the Toun’s common mark, and banished the kingdom, for the crime of double adultery.
“1663, March 13. – Alexander Kennedy; hanged for raising false bonds and writts.
“- March 21. – Aucht Qwakers; liberated, certifying if again troubling the place, the next prison shall be the Correction House.
“- July 8. – Katherine Reid; hanged for theft.
“- July 8. – Sir Archibald Johnston of Warriston; treason. Hanged, his head cut off and placed on the Netherbow.
“- July 18. – Bessie Brebner; hanged for murder.
“- Aug. 25. – The Provost of Kirkcudbright; banished for keeping his house during a tumult.
“- Oct. 5. – William Dodds; beheaded for murder.”
And so on in grim monotony, till we come to the last five entries in the old record, which is quite incomplete.
“1728, Oct. 25. – John Gibson; forging a declaration, 18th January, 1727. His lug nailed to the Tron, and dismissed.
“1751, March 18. – Helen Torrance and Jean Waldie were executed this day, for stealing a child, eight or nine years of age, and selling its body to the surgeons for dissection. Alice on Tuesday when carried off, and dead on Friday, with an incision in the belly, but sewn up again.
“1752, Jan. 10. – Norman Ross; hanged and hung in chains between Leith and Edinburgh, for assassinating Lady Bailie, sister to Home of Wedderburn.
“1756, May 4. – Sir William Dalrymple of Cousland; for shooting at Capt. Hen. Dalrymple of Fordell, with a pistol at the Cross of Edinburgh. Liberated on 14th May, on bail for 6,000 merks, to answer any complaint.
“1757, Feb. 4. – James Rose, Excise Officer at Muthill; banished to America for forging receipts for arrears.”

It was a peculiarity of the Tolbooth, that through clanship, or some other influence, nearly every criminal of rank confined in it achieved an escape.

Robert fourth Lord Burleigh, a half insane peer, who was one of the commissioners for executing the office of Lord Register in 1689, and who married a daughter of the Earl of Melville about the time of the Union, assassinated a schoolmaster who had married a girl to whom he had paid improper addresses, was committed to the Tolbooth, and sentenced to death; and of his first attempt to escape the following story is told. He was carried out of the prison in a large trunk, to be conveyed to Leith, on the back of a powerful porter, who was to put him on board a vessel about to sail for the Continent. It chanced that when slinging the trunk on his back, the porter did so with Lord Burleigh’s head downmost, thus it had to sustain the weight of his whole body. The posture was agony, the way long and rough, but life was dear. Unconscious of his actual burden, the porter reached the Netherbow Port, where an acquaintance asked him “whither he was going?” “To Leith,” was the reply. “Is the work good enough to afford a glass before going farther?” Was the next question. The porter said it was; and tossed down the trunk with such violence that it elicited a scream from Lord Burleigh, who instantly fainted.

Scared and astounded, the porter wrenched open the trunk, when its luckless inmate was found cramped, doubled-up, and senseless. A crowd collected; the City Guard came promptly on the spot, and when the prisoner recovered from his swoon he was safe in his old quarters, which did not hold him long, however, as it would appear from the old folio of Douglas Peerage that he escaped in his sister’s clothes. Yet as Lord Burleigh died in 1713, Douglas in this matter seems to confound him with his son, the Master.

Of all the thousands who must have been prisoners there, recorded and unrecorded, on every conceivable charge, the stories of none have created more excitement than those of Captain Porteous, of Katharine Nairne, and another prisoner named Hay; and singular to say, the names of none of them appear in the mutilated record just quoted. Porteous has been called the real hero of the Tolbooth. “The mob that thundered at its ancient portals on the eventful night of the 7th of September, 1736, and dashed through its blazing embers to drag forth the victim of their indignant revenge, has cast into shade all former acts of Lynch Law, for which the Edinburgh populace were once so notorious.” But the real secret and mainspring of the whole tragedy was jealousy of the treatment of Scotland by the ministry in London.

The malt-tax, the dismissal of the Duke of Roxburgh from his office as Scottish Secretary of State, and the imposition of an intolerable taxation, the first result of the Union, and the endeavours of the revenue officers to repress smuggling, all embittered the blood of the people. The latter officials were either all Englishmen, “or Scotsmen, chosen, as was alleged, on account of their treachery to Scottish interests, and received but little support even from local authorities. If in their occasional collisions with smugglers they shed blood, they were at once prosecuted, and an outcry was raised that Englishmen should not be allowed to slaughter Scotsmen with impunity.” At length these quarrels led to and culminated in the Porteous mob.


The seaport towns with which the coast of Fife is so thickly studded were at this time much infested by Scottish bands of daring smugglers, many of whom had been buccaneers in the Antilles and Gulf of Florida, and thus were constantly at war with the revenue officials. One of these contrabandistas, named Wilson, in revenge for various seizures and fines, determined to rob the collector of Customs at Pittenweem, and in this, with the aid of a lad named Robertson and two others, he fully succeeded. They were all apprehended, and tried; Wilson and Robertson were sentenced to death, without the slightest hope of a pardon. While the criminals were lying in the Tolbooth of Edinburgh, by the aid of two horse-stealers, who were confined in a cell immediately above them, they succeeded in cutting the iron stanchels of a window, singing psalms the while to drown all sound. One of the horse-stealers succeeded in getting through the aperture, and the other might have escaped in the same way but for the obstinacy of Wilson, who insisted on making the next attempt. Being a bulky man he stuck fast between the bars, the gudeman of the Tolbooth was speedily made aware of the attempt, and took sure means to preclude a repetition of it. The character of Wilson the smuggler was not without some noble qualities, and he felt poignant regret for the selfish obstinacy by which he had prevented the escape of young Robertson; thus he formed the secret resolution of saving his comrade’s life, at any risk of his own. On the Sunday before the execution, according to the custom of the period, the criminals were taken to that part of St. Giles’s named the Tolbooth kirk, to hear the sermon preached for their especial benefit, but under custody of four soldiers of the City Guard, armed with their bayonets. On the dismissal of the congregation, Wilson, who was an active and powerful man, suddenly seized two of the soldiers, one with each hand, a third with his teeth, and calling to Robertson, “Run, Geordie, run!” Saw, with satisfaction, the latter knock the fourth soldier down, and achieve an escape, which no one for a moment thought of marring.

The success of this daring achievement, though it doubly sealed his own fate, removed a load of remorse from the mind of Wilson, and excited so much sympathy in his behalf, that it was currently rumoured an attempt would be made to rescue him at the place of execution. When the day for that came – the 14th April, 1736 – it was found that the magistrates had taken ample precautions to enforce the law. Around the scaffold was a strong body of the City Guard, while a detachment of the Welsh Fusiliers – which young Elliot of Stobs, the future Lord Heathfield, had just joined as a volunteer – was under arms in the principal street. Vast multitudes had assembled, but their behaviour was subdued and orderly until the terrible sentence had been executed, and the body of Wilson swung from the lofty gibbet in the Grassmarket. Then a yell of rage and execration burst from the people, who broke through all restraint, and assailed the City Guard with every missile they could find. The body of Andrew Wilson was cut down, and an attempt made to carry it off. It was interred at Pathhead, the burial register of which records that “The corpse of Andrew Wilson, baker, son to Andrew Wilson, baker and inn-dweller in Dunnikier (Qui mortuit Gallifocio Edinburgam), was interred on the 5th April, 1736.” An old denizen of Pathhead declared that he saw Wilson’s grave opened, and could not but remark upon the size and texture of his bones.

The magistrates fled for shelter to a house in the Grassmarket, and the mob carried all before it. Captain Porteous, the commander of the Guard, was an active officer, who had seen some service with the Scots Brigade in Holland; but he was a harsh, proud man, of profligate character, who, it has been alleged, rendered himself odious to the people by the severity with which he punished the excesses of the poor, compared with his leniency to the wealthy. His fierce pride was roused to boiling heat. He had resented the escape of Robertson as an imputation upon the City Guard; and also resented, as an insult, the presence of the Welsh Fusiliers in the city, where no drums were permitted to be beaten save his own and those of the 25th of Edinburgh Regiment, and he was therefore well inclined to vent his wrath on Wilson, as the cause of all these affronts. It would seem that on the morning of the execution, he appeared, by those who saw him, to be possessed by an evil spirit. It is alleged that he treated Wilson with brutal severity before leaving the prison; and when the riot began, after the execution, and the City Guard was slowly returning up the steep West Bow, and facing about from time to time under showers of missiles, which broke some bonces and dashed the drums to pieces, it is said that he not only ordered his soldiers to “level their pieces and be d—-d!” but snatched a musket from one and shot a ringleader dead (Charles Husband, the man who cut down Wilson); then a ragged volley followed, and six or seven more fell killed or wounded.


An Edinburgh crowd never has been easily intimidated; the blood of the people was fairly up now, and they closed in upon the soldiers with louder imprecations and heavier volleys of stones. A second time the Guard faced about and fired, filling the steep narrow street with smoke, and producing the most fatal results; and as all who were killed or wounded belonged to the better class of citizens – some of whom were viewing the tumult from their own windows – public indignation became irrepressible. Captain John Porteous was therefore brought to trial for murder, and sentenced to die in the usual manner on the 8th of September, 1736. His defence was that his men fired without orders; that his own fusil when shown to the magistrates was clean; and that the fact of their issuing ball ammunition amounted “to no less than an order to fire when it became necessary.”

George II. was then on the Continent, and Queen Caroline, who acted as regent of a country of which she knew not even the language, took a more favourable view of the affair of Porteous than the Edinburgh mob had done, and from the Home Office a six weeks’ reprieve, preparatory to granting a full pardon, was sent down. “The tidings that a reprieve had been obtained by Porteous created great indignation among the citizens of the capital; they regarded the royal intervention in his behalf as a proof that the unjust English Government were disposed to treat the slaughter of Scotsmen by a military officer as a very venial offence, and a resolution was formed that Porteous should not escape the punishment which his crime deserved.”

On the night of the 7th September, according to a carefully-arranged plan, a small party of citizens, apparently of the lower class, preceded by a drum, appeared in the suburb called Portsburgh. At the sound of the drum the fast-swelling mob assembled from all quarters; the West Port was seized, nailed, and barricaded. Marching rapidly along the Cowgate, with numbers increasing at every step, and all more or less well-armed, they poured into the High Street, and seized the Nether Bow Port, to cut off all communication with the Welsh Fusiliers, then quartered in the Canongate. While a strong band held this important post, the City Guardsmen were seized and disarmed in detail; their armoury was captured, and all their muskets, bayonets, halberts, and Lochaber axes, distributed to the crown, which with cheers of triumph now assailed the Tolbooth, while strong bands held the street to the eastward and westward, to frighten all who might come either from the Castle or Canongate. Thus no one would dare convey a written order to the magistrates, and Colonel Moyle, of the 23rd, very properly declined to move upon the verbal message of Mr. Lindsay, M.P. for the city.


Meanwhile the din of sledge-hammers, bars, and axes, resounded on the ponderous outer gate of the Tolbooth. Its vast strength defied all efforts, till a voice cried, “Try it with fire!” Tar-barrels and other combustibles were brought; the red flames shot upward, and the gate was gradually reduced to cinders, and through these and smoke the mob rushed in with shouts of triumph. The keys of the cells were torn from the trembling warder. The apartment in which Porteous was confined was searched in vain, as it seemed at first, till the unhappy creature was found to have crept up the chimney. This he had done at the risk of suffocation, but his upward progress was stopped by an iron grating, which is often placed across the vents of such edifices for the sake of security, and to this he clung by his fingers, with a tenacity bordering on despair, and the fear of a dreadful death – a death in what form and at whose hands he knew not. He was dragged down, and though some proposed to slay him on the spot, was told by others to prepare for that death elsewhere which justice had awarded; but amid all their fury, the rioters conducted themselves generally with grim and mature deliberation. Porteous was allowed to entrust his money and papers with a person who was in prison for debt, and one of the rioters kindly and humanely offered him the last consolation religion can afford. The dreadful procession, seen by thousands of eyes from the crowded windows, was then begun, and amid the gleam of links and torches, that tipped with fire the blades of hundreds of weapons, the crowd poured down the West Bow to the Grassmarket. So coolly and deliberately did they proceed, that when one of Porteous’ slippers dropped from his foot, as he was borne sobbing and praying along, they halted, and replaced it. In the Bow the shop of a dealer in cordage (over whose door there hung a grotesque figure, still preserved) was broken open, a rope taken therefrom, and a guinea left in its stead. On reaching the place of execution, still marked by an arrangement of the stones, they were at a loss for a gibbet, till they discovered a dyer’s pole in its immediate vicinity. They tied the rope round the neck of their victim, and slinging it over the crossbeam, swung him up, and speedily put an end to his sufferings and his life; then the roar of voices that swept over the vast place and re-echoed up the Castle rocks, announced that all was over! But ere this was achieved Porteous had been twice let down and strung up again, while many struck him with their Lochaber axes, and tried to cut off his ears.


Among those who witnessed this scene, and never forgot it, was the learned Lord Monboddo. Who had that morning come for the first time to Edinburgh. “When about retiring to rest (according to ‘Kay’s Portaits’) his curiosity was excited by the noise and tumult in the streets, and in place of going to bed, he slipped to the door, half-dressed, with a night-cap on his head. He speedily got entangled in the crowd of passers-by, and was hurried along with them to the Grassmarket, where he became an involuntary witness of the last act of the tragedy. This scene made so deep an impression on his lordship, that it not only deprived him of sleep for the remainder of the night, but induced him to think of leaving the city altogether, as a place unfit for a civilised being to live in. His lordship frequently related this incident in after life, and on these occasions described with much force the effect it had upon him.” Lord Monboddo died in 1799.

As soon as the rioters had satiated their vengeance, they tossed away their weapons, and quietly dispersed; and when the morning of the 8th September stole in nothing remained of the event but the fire-blackened cinders of the Tolbooth door, the muskets and Lochaber axes scattered in the streets, and the dead body of Porteous swinging in the breeze from the dyer’s pole. According to the Caledonian Mercury of 9th September, 1736, the body of Porteous was interred on the second day in the Greyfriars. The Government was exasperated, and resolved to inflict summary vengeance on the city. Alexander Wilson, the Lord Provost, was arrested, but admitted to bail after three weeks’ incarceration. A Bill was introduced into Parliament materially affecting the city, but the clauses for the further imprisonment of the innocent Provost, abolishing the City Guard, and dismantling the gates, were left out when amended by the Commons, and in place of these a small fine of £2,000 in favour of Captain Porteous’ widow was imposed upon Edinburgh. Thus terminated this extraordinary conspiracy, which to this day remains a mystery. Large rewards were offered in vain for the ringleaders, many of whom had been disguised as females. One of them is said to have been the Earl of Haddington, clad in his cook-maid’s dress. The Act of Parliament enjoined the proclamation for the discovery of the rioters should be read from the parish pulpits on Sunday, but many clergymen refused to do so, and there was no power to compel them; and the people remembered with much bitterness that a certain Captain Lind, of the Town Guard, who had given evidence in Edinburgh tending to incriminate the magistrates, was rewarded by a commission in Lord Tyrawley’s South British Fusiliers, now 7th Foot.


The next prisoner in the Tolbooth who created an intensity of interest in the minds of contemporaries was Katharine Nairn, the young and beautiful daughter of Sir Robert Nairn, Bart., a lady allied by blood and marriage to many families of the best position. Her crime was a double one – that of poisoning her husband, Ogilvie of Eastmilne, and of having an intrigue with his youngest brother Patrick, a lieutenant of the Old Gordon Highlanders, disbanded, as we elsewhere stated, in 1765. The victim, to whom she had been married in her nineteenth year, was a man of property, but far advanced in life, and her marriage appears to have been one of those unequal matches by which the happiness of a girl is sacrificed to worldly policy. On her arrival at Leith in an open boat in 1766, her whole bearing betrayed so much levity, and was so different from what was expected by a somewhat pitying crowd, that a storm of just indignation was roused, and she was with some difficulty rescued from rough treatment by the authorities; but in her case, as in some others, the strong walls of the old Tolbooth proved incapable of retaining a culprit of courage and high position. The final passing of the fatal sentence had been delayed by the Lords on account of the lady’s pregnancy. Mrs. Shields, the midwife who attended her accouchement (and who was a public practitioner in the city so lately as 1805), “had the address to achieve a jail delivery also.” For three or four days previous to the concerted escape she pretended to be afflicted with a maddening toothache, and went in and out of the Tolbooth with her head and face muffled in shawls and flannels, and groaning as if life were a burden to her. At length, when the warders and sentinels had become fully used to see her thus, Katharine Nairn came down one evening in her stead, with her head enveloped, with the usual groans, and holding her hands upon her face, as if in agony. The warder of the inner door, as she passed out, gave her a slap on the back, calling her a “howling old Jezebel,” and adding a “hope that she would trouble him no more.”

In her confusion, and perhaps ignorance of the city, she knocked at the door of Lord Alva, in James’s Court, mistaking his house for that of her father’s agent. The footboy who opened the door had a candle in his hand, and having been in court during the time of her recent trial, immediately recognised her, and raised the hue and cry. She then fled down a neighbouring close, and achieved concealment for a time in the immediate vicinity of the Tolbooth, in a cellar about half-way down the old back stairs of the Parliament Close belonging to the house of her uncle, W. Nairn, advocate (afterwards Lord Dunsinane), from whence she was conducted to Dover in a post-chaise by one of that gentleman’s clerks, who was kept in constant dread of discovery by the extreme frivolity of her conduct. From Dover, disguised in the uniform of an officer, she safely reached the Continent, and afterwards America, where she is said to have married again, and died at an advanced age, with the faces of a numerous progeny around her bed.


In the Tolbooth, in 1770, Mungo Campbell committed suicide when under sentence of death for shooting the Earl of Eglinton. But his body was dragged through the streets by the mob, who threw it from the summit of Salisbury Craigs into the chasm known as the Cat Nick.

In 1782 the Tolbooth was visited by the philanthropist John Howard, and again, five years subsequently, when he expressed his horror of it, and hoped to have found a better one in its place; and in 1783 there occurred one of the last remarkable escapes therefrom. James Hay, a lad of eighteen, son of a stabler in the Grassmarket, was a prisoner in November, under sentence of death for robbery, and a few days before that appointed for his execution, the father visited the condemned cell, apparently to condole with his unhappy son. When night was closing in and visitors were compelled to retire, old Hay invited the keeper of the inner door to partake of some liquor he had brought with him. He did so, and became rather tipsy about the time for finally locking the gates – ten o’clock. Hay expressed some regret to part just at a moment when they were beginning to enjoy their liquor, and proposed that his companion should run out and procure a bottle of good rum from a neighbouring tavern. The turnkey consented, and staggered down the turnpike stair, neglecting to lock the inner door behind him. As had been concerted, young James Hay followed close behind him; but the outer warder closed the outer door when the panting prisoner was about to spring into the street! At that dread moment old Hay put his head to the great window of the hall, and gave the authoritative order then in use, “Turn your hand!” The usual drawling cry which hourly brought the outer warder to unlock the external gate. Mechanically the man obeyed; the young culprit sprang out, and while his father and the turnkey were jovially discussing the rum, he fled like a hunted hare down Beith’s steep wynd, that lay opposite the Tolbooth, and, according to a preconcerted plan, scaled the walls of the Greyfriars churchyard near the lower gate, a feat impossible to one less agile; but so well had every stage of the business been arranged, that a large stone had been thrown down to facilitate the act. James Hay had been provided with a key that opened the long-unused gate of the gloomy-domed mausoleum of Sir George Mackenzie, a place still full of terror to boys, as it is supposed to behaunted by the blood-red spirit of the persecutor, and there he secreted himself, while the following advertisement appeared in the Edinburgh Advertiser of the 24th November, 1783:-


“James Hay, indicted for highway robbery, aged about 18 years, by trade a glazier, 5 feet 10 inches high, slender made, pale complexion, long visage, brown hair cut short, pitted a little in the face with the small-pox, speaks slow with a haar in his tone, and has a mole on one of his cheeks. The magistrates offer a reward of Twenty Guineas to any person who will apprehend and secure the said James Hay, to be paid by the City Chamberlain, on the said James Hay being re-committed to the Tolbooth of this city.”

But James Hay had been a “Herioter,” brought up in the famous hospital which adjoins the ancient and gloomy burying-ground; thus, he contrived to make known his circumstances to some of his boyish friends, and besought them to assist him in his distress, as it was impossible for his father to do so. A very clannish spirit animated “the Auld Herioters” of those days, and not to succour one of the community, however undeserving he might be of aid, would have been deemed by them as a crime of the foulest nature; thus, Hay’s school-fellows supplied his wants from their own meals, conveying him food in his eerie lurking-place, by scaling the old smoke-blackened and ivied walls, at the risk of severe punishment, and of seeing sights “uncanny,” for six weeks, till the hue and cry abated, when he ventured to leave the tomb in the night, and escaped abroad or to England, beyond reach of the law.

“The principal entrance to the Tolbooth,” to quote one familiar with the old edifice, “was at the bottom of the turret next the church. The gateway was of good carved stonework, and occupied by a door of ponderous massiveness and strength, having, besides the lock, a flap padlock, which, however, was generally kept unlocked during the day. In front of the door there always paraded a private of the Town Guard, with his rusty-red clothes and Lochaber axe or musket. The door adjacent to the principal gateway was in the final days of the Tolbooth ‘Michael Kettins’ shoe-shop;” but had formerly been a thief’s hole. After further describing the tortuous access, the writer continues: “You then entered the hall, which being free to all prisoners save those in the east end, was usually filled with a crowd of shabby-looking but very merry loungers. A small rail here served as an additional security, no prisoner being permitted to come within its pale. Here, also, a sentinel of the Town Guard was always walking with a bayonet or a ramrod in his hand. The hall being also the chapel of the gaol, contained an old pulpit of singular fashion – such a pulpit as one could have imagined Knox to have preached from, and which indeed he is traditionally said to have actually done. At the right hand side of the pulpit was a door, leading up the large turnpike (stair) to the apartments occupied by the criminals, one of which was of plate-iron. The door was always shut, except when food was taken up to the prisoners. On the west end of the hall hung a board, whereon was inscribed the following emphatic lines:-

‘A prison is a house of care,
A place where none can thrive;
A touchstone true to try a friend,
A grave for men alive.


Sometimes a place of right,
Sometimes a place of wrong,
Sometimes a place for jades and thieves,
And honest men among.’

The floor immediately above the hall was occupied by one room for felons, having a bar along part of the floor, to which condemned criminals were chained, and a square box of plate-iron in the centre was called ‘the cage’ which was said to have been constructed for the purpose of confining some extraordinary culprit who had broken half the jails in the kingdom. Above this room was another of the same size appropriated to felons.” At the western end was the platform where public executions took place.


Doomed to destruction, this gloomy and massive edifice, of many stirring memories, was swept away in 1817, and the materials of it were used for the construction of the great sewers and drains in the vicinity of Fettes Row, emphatically styled “the grave of the old Tolbooth.” The arched doorway, door, and massive lock, Sir Walter Scott engrafted on a part of his mansion at Abbotsford; and in 1829 he found that “a tom-tit was pleased to build her nest within the lock of the Tolbooth – a strong temptation,” he adds, in the edition of his works issued in the following year, “to have committed a sonnet.”

The City Guard-house formed long a “pendicle” – to use a Scottish term – of the old Tolbooth. Scott has described this edifice as “a long, low, ugly building, which, to a fanciful imagination, might have suggested the idea of a long black snail crawling up the middle of the High Street, and deforming its beautiful esplanade.” It stood in front of the Black Turnpike, and during the impartial rule of the Cromwellian period, formed the scene of many an act of stern discipline, when drunkards were compelled to ride the wooden horse, with muskets tied to their feet, and “a drinking cup,” as Nicoll names it, on their head. “The chronicles of this place of petty durance, could they now be recovered, would furnish many an amusing scrap of antiquated scandal, interspersed at rare intervals with the graver deeds of such disciplinarians as the Protector, or the famous sack of the Porteous mob. There such fair offenders as the witty and eccentric Miss Mackenzie, daughter of Lord Royston, found at times a night’s lodging, when she and her maid sallied out as preux chevaliers in search of adventures. Occasionally even a grave judge or learned lawyer, surprised out of his official decorum by the temptation of a jovial club, was astonished, on awaking, to find himself within its impartial walls, among such strange bedfellows as the chances of the night had offered to its vigilant guardians.” A slated building of one storey in height, it consisted of four apartments. In the western end was the captain’s room; there was also a “Burghers’ room,” for special prisoners; in the centre was a common hall; and at the east end was an apartment devoted to the use of the Tron-men, or city sweeps. Under the captain’s room was the black-hole, in which coals and refractory prisoners were kept. In 1785 this unsightly edifice was razed to the ground, and the soldiers of the Guard, after occupying the new Assembly Rooms, had their head-quarters finally assigned them on the ground floor of the old Tolbooth.

It is impossible to quit our memorials of the latter without a special reference to the famous old City Guard, with which it was inseparably connected.

In the alarm caused by the defeat at Flodden, all male inhabitants of the city were required to be in arms and readiness, while twenty-four men were selected as a permanent or standing watch, and in them originated the City Guard, which, however, was not completely constituted until 1648, when the Town Council appointed a body of sixty men to be raised, whereof the captain was, says Arnot, “to have the monthly pay of £11 2s. 3d. sterling, two lieutenants of £2 each, two sergeants of £1 5s., three corporals of £1, and the private men 15s. each per month.”

No regular fund being provided to defray this expense, after a time the old method of “watching and warding,” every fourth citizen to be on duty in arms each night, was resumed; but those, he adds, on whom this service was incumbent, became so relaxed in discipline, that the Privy Council informed the magistrates that if they did not provide an efficient guard to preserve order in the city, the regular troops of the Scottish army would be quartered in it.

Upon this threat forty armed men were raised as a guard in 1679, and in consequence of an event which occurred in 1682, this number was increased to 108 men. The event referred to was a riot, caused by an attempt to carry off a number of lads who had been placed in the Tolbooth for trivial offences, to serve the prince of Orange as soldiers. As they were being marched to Leith, under escort, a crowd led by women attacked the latter. By order of Major Keith, commanding, the soldiers fired upon the people; seven men and two women were shot, and twenty-two fell wounded. One of the women being with child, it was cut from her and baptised in the street. The excitement of this affair caused the augmentation of the guard, for whose maintenance a regular tax was levied, while Patrick Grahame, a younger son of Inchbraikie – the same officer whom Macaulay so persistently confounds with Claverhouse – was appointed captain, with the concurrence of the Duke of York and Albany. Their pay was 6d. daily, the drummers’ 1s., and the sergeants’ 1s. 6d. In 1685 Patrick Grahame, “captain of His Majesty’s (Scottish) forces with cloth and other necessaries.”

After the time of the Revolution the number of the corps was very fluctuating, and for a period, after 1750, it consisted usually of only seventy-five men, a force most unequal to the duty to be done. “The Lord Provost is commander of this useful corps,” wrote Arnot, in 1779. “The men are properly disciplined, and fire remarkably well. Within these two years some disorderly soldiers in one of the marching regiments, having conceived an umbrage at the Town Guard, attacked them. They were double in number to the party of the Town Guard, who, in the scuffle, severely wounded some of their assailants, and made the whole prisoners.” By day they were armed with muskets and bayonets; at night with Lochaber axes. They were mostly Highlanders, all old soldiers, many of whom had served in the Scots brigades in Holland. In the city they took precedence of all troops of the line. At a monthly inspection of the corps in 1789 the Lord Provost found a soldier in the ranks who had served since the Porteous mob, in 1736, on which he was discharged, with a pension for life. (Edinburgh Advertiser, No. 2619.)

“On Tuesday (19th of May, 1789) the three companies of the City Guard were reviewed by the magistrates on the Calton Hill. The men now composing this corps have all been in the army (except a few), and the captains having all served in the line last war, a remarkable improvement and dexterity were observed in their manœuvres and exactness of firing. The magistrates complimented the commanding officer, and gave a handsome donation to the men for their behaviour. The magistrates have ordered the night sentinels to be furnished with rattles, similar to those of the watchmen in London, in case of fire or riot, for the purpose of early assistance from the main guard.” (Ibid., 1789.) All the officers wore bullion epaulettes and gilded gorgets.

“The guard! the guard!” was the common street cry for succour. “A humble Highlander considered it as getting a berth when he was enlisted into the Edinburgh Guard. Of this feeling,” says Chambers, “we have a remarkable illustration in an anecdote which I was told regarding the Highland bard Duncan Macintyre, usually called Donacha Bhan. This man, really an exquisite poet to those understanding his language, became the object of interest to many educated persons in Perthshire, his native county. The Earl of Breadalbane sent to let him know that he wished to befriend him, and was anxious to procure him some situation that might put him comparatively at his ease. Poor Duncan returned his thanks, and asked his lordship to get him into the Edinburgh Town Guard – pay 6d. A day!” Donacha Bhan died in 1812, in the 89th year of his age, and was laid in the Greyfriars’ churchyard. When the old Guard paraded in the Parliament Close, on the day after the battle of Falkirk, more than one musket in the ranks was found to be foul, a significant sign that they had been used against the red-coats the day before. Writing, in 1817, of these veterans, Scott says, “A spectre may, indeed, here and there be seen of an old grey-headed and grey-bearded Highlander, with war-worn features, but bent double by age, dressed in an old-fashioned cocked hat, bound with white tape instead of silver lace, and in coat, waistcoat, and breeches of muddy coloured red, bearing in his withered hand an ancient weapon called a Lochaber axe. Such a phantom of former days still creeps, I have been informed, round the statue of Charles II. in the Parliament Square, as if the image of a Stuart were the last refuge for any memorial of our ancient manners.”

In that year the Guard was finally disbanded, and the modern police took its place. The last duty performed by these old soldiers was to march to Hallow Fair, on which occasion their drums and fifes played slowly and sadly-

“The last time I cam’ o’er the muir.”

Scott mentions this, but he little knew that two survivors of the corps would make their last actual appearance in public at the laying of the foundation of his monument, on the 15th of August, 1840.

The last captain of the Guard was James Burnet, whose only military experience had been gained in the 1st Regiment of Edinburgh Volunteers, and previous to appointment he had been a grocer at the head of the Flesh-market Close. He died at Seton, on the 24th of August, 1814.

One other memorial of the Tolbooth was that quarter of it which was named “The Puir Folks’ Purses,” on the north side. It derived its cognomen from being the place where the ancient fraternity of Blue Gowns, or King’s Faithful Bedesmen, received the royal bounty presented to them on each king’s birthday, in a leathern purse, after having attended service in St. Giles’s church. The origin of this fraternity is of great antiquity. Bedesmen to pray for the souls of the Scottish kings, their ancestors and successors, were attached to most royal foundations, and they are mentioned in the chartulary of Moray, about 1226. The number of these Bedesmen was increased by one every royal birthday, as a penny was added to the pension of each, an arrangement doubtless devised to stimulate their prayers for the life of the reigning monarch. For many years previous to the destruction of the Tolbooth the distribution of a roll of bread, a tankard of ale, a blue gown, and a curiously-made leathern purse, was transferred to the Canongate kirk aisle. With the usual parsimony of the Imperial Government in most matters connected with Scotland – matters of more import than this – the badges, gowns, and pensions, have all been discontinued, and the poor Bedesmen are now among the things that were, while a precisely similar charity is retained to this day at Windsor.


* Articles on the life of Admirable Crichton can be found posted in ‘Scots Lore’ (1895), pp.181-192 & 238-252.

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